Last month, I played my first-ever official game of Canada's national sport. No, not lacrosse - hockey, the only thing over which Canadians will unapologetically claim global dominance.
I grew up on Hockey Night in Canada in the height of Edmonton Oilers supremacy. Every Saturday night, the television was religiously tuned to CBC at 7 p.m. I had a crush on Jari Kurri. I loved the way his Finnish name rolled off my tongue and how he made plays with Wayne Gretzky an intimate art. Some of my favourite sounds in the world were the ring of the puck off the post, or the swirl of skates cutting through ice.
But I was a girl. And girls didn't play hockey in my generation. They figure skated or perhaps played ringette. Instead of emulating my hockey heroes, I took one year of figure-skating lessons.
So, despite my love for the game, I never held a hockey stick in my hands until my late 30s. My eldest son began to play hockey in the local house league, and his little brother followed soon after. I watched the other five-year-olds stumbling across the blue line and wished it was me.
Over the next few winters, our family began to play shinny on the outdoor rinks in our neighbourhood park. I learned to haltingly dangle, make a pass off the backhand and do a slow-motion spinorama, spinning with the puck on my stick.
But when my six-year-old son began dipsy-doodling around me earlier this year, I decided it was time to take action. I'm 42 years old and I refuse to be outskated by someone in Grade 1. After a fruitless Internet search, I eventually met someone at the park who played in a women's recreational hockey league in town. It was midseason, but one team was accepting players. They played once a week, on Tuesday nights. I signed up.
I drove to the rink at 9 p.m. in a snowstorm. I wasn't sure what I was more concerned about - sliding off the edge of the icy road into the ditch, or having left without one of my 15 required pieces of equipment. I had compiled my hockey gear over the past few weeks, using Salvation Army finds and the kindness of male friends. One of my most stunning discoveries was how expensive it was to buy new. For being so coast-to-coast Canadian, this sport may be more elite than I realized.
I arrived at the arena and peeked through heavy swinging doors until I found the right dressing room. The eight women inside spanned four decades. It was quieter than I imagined it would be. Soon talk of work, crawling babies and grandkids unfolded.
My captain introduced herself, and I sat on the bench to suit up. I had dressed my kids for hockey so many times that I knew what went where, but I had never done it on myself. I was struck by how vulnerable my calves were. Could this be right? Was there really nothing between me and a flying puck but a long white polyester sock?
We marched out past the players' bench onto the ice for a warm-up. It was my first time skating in full equipment. I felt enormous. Amazonian. Almost impenetrable, except my calves. My huge hockey gloves were clumsy paws and I couldn't scratch my nose through the helmet cage.
We circled our half of the ice and took the occasional shot. The clock counted down and we met by the boards for our team cheer. My captain prefaced the cheer with an apology to me, saying the words were kind of inappropriate, but until we found something better, this was it: "Beat 'em, bust 'em, that's our custom. Come on Black Team, readjust 'em!"
The buzzer sounded and the referee dropped the puck for the opening faceoff. I was playing right wing, just like Jari Kurri. Perfect. Skating in the footsteps of genius.
In their first rush, the other team scored. I was minus one and the game had hardly begun. We rallied with a goal, but 20 minutes later the first period was done and we were down by three.
Our captain gave us a pep talk. She told us to mark our man and keep our heads up to look for the pass. Seemed simple enough, but which of the helmets with the protruding ponytails was my man?
I got one shot, lost two battles on the boards, intercepted a pass and missed a golden opportunity. Fifty minutes of ice time flew by. We lost 6-3, but no one seemed the slightest bit miffed. So long as we were breathless from skating and having fun, it was a worthwhile night. We tapped gloves at centre ice, headed to the dressing room and pulled off our gear.
I drove home smiling, lugged my hockey bag out of the trunk and headed upstairs. Before bed, I kissed my sleeping four-year-old daughter. Like me she is a hockey lover. Unlike me, she is already flying around on our backyard rink with stick in hand. Keep an eye out. She may be the next great phenom.
Brenda Melles lives in Kingston.
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